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Word from Wormingford

16 June 2009

Ronald Blythe reads a report from his own personal traveller

A PALE but warm sun lightens the wet fields. The lawns are soggy and too rain-laden to cut, and the old roses look like old mops. But the runner beans are away. Tomorrow we are due to explore the hills and holes at Barnack, the open-cast quarry near Peterborough where the poet John Clare hid from prying village eyes to write. The weather forecasts are watery, but we’ll go all the same.

Like those of all 19th-century — and earlier — folk, the accounts of his rambles usually mention the people he encountered, although they took second place to the birds and flowers. Stephen’s do not. He is my best “walking” friend. The descrip­tions of his walks are for me alone, although sometimes for his sister.

One has just arrived. It is beauti­ful, and as fresh as the hour when he started out — 4 a.m., at first driving a little way. “Two things hit me as I got out of the car: the cold air, and a wall of birdsong, the last part of the dawn chorus.”

From then on, he takes me, his sole reader, into the lovely hidden Essex of “the flat coastal plain to­wards Maldon, Bradwell, and the sea”. St Cedd’s territory in fact. But should Stephen pass another walker or worker, he will not mention him.

Nearly all foot-travellers of pre­vious times say a great deal more about fellow walkers than they do about Nature — Nature in scientific terms, that is, although their des­crip­tive handling of scenery can be superb. George Borrow (Wild Wales) actually walked so that he could run into characters for his books. And Francis Kilvert’s Diary is an un­conscious social history of the poor as they moved about: penniless lads, old soldiers, and vagrant workers, each of whom would catch his kind attention for an hour or so. Words­worth made such briefly met tramps immortal.

Ancient laws were fierce about vagrancy, but, in summer, countless “travellers” descended on our East Anglian fields to pick the peas, hops, and fruit. All have gone. No longer do the village pubs display chalked disgust — “No Gypsies, no Irish, no Tramps”. Such essential labour was paid, but not thanked.

This vanishing of itinerants, this now complete absence of the season­al strangers, has played havoc with the rural short story. Masters of this literary genre, one of the most dif­ficult and among the most entran­cing forms of fiction, are robbed of the dramatic disturbance caused by the stranger on the road.

Read A. E. Coppard, H. E. Bates, and many of the other great 20th-century writers, and you will see how rich and strange — and dangerous — the market towns and villages were when the old lanes were being tramped down even further by a travelling mixture of workforce and idling force, as they had been for centuries. All gone; all disappeared over the hill.

The Sunday newspapers have a section on Walks. They give maps and mileage and historical infor­mation. Little is left to chance. But “chance” should be the pearl of any walk. The chance for Stephen on his 4-a.m. walk was that the world would give him its “early showing”, and it did.

Walking to church, or to the village shop, I hope for nothing in particular, but not once have I reached the half-lost farmhouse without the award of some kind of tramp-prize.

Although it can never be of the curious quality that a 1930s walk, say, would almost certainly give, it will add something to the day. Some­one I do not know has greeted me by my Christian name.

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